Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

Smartphone Usage Amongst Children Must Be Monitored, Says Expert

Jul 16, 2019 08:33 AM EDT

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Countless hours spent communicating with friends on Snapchat and Instagram may be as dangerously addictive for teenagers and children as drugs and alcohol, and needs to be treated just the same, school administrators and teachers were warned at an education conference in London.

Speaking with experts in technology addiction and adolescent development, Harley Street rehab clinic specialist Mandy Saligari cautioned that screen time was normally ignored as a possible vehicle for addiction in adolescents.

"I always say to people, when you're giving your kid a tablet or a phone, you're really giving them a bottle of wine or a gram of coke," she said. "Are you really going to leave them to knock the whole thing out on their own behind closed doors? Why do we pay so much less attention to those things than we do to drugs and alcohol when they work on the same brain impulses?"

Her remarks come after news that some children as young as 13 years old are being treated for digital technology addiction - with a third of British children aged 12-15 admitting they do not have a decent balance of screen time and alternative activities. "When people tend to look at addiction, their eyes tend to be on the substance or thing - but really it's a pattern of behavior that can manifest itself in a number of different ways," Ms. Saligari said, naming food obsessions, self-harm and sexting as examples.

Concern has become more prevalent recently over the number of children seen to be sending and/or receiving material that is simply not suitable for their respective ages. This material sometimes consists of pornographic pictures, or even accessing age-inappropriate content through their devices via the internet.

Ms. Saligari, who heads the Harley Street Charter clinic in London, mentioned around 65 percent of her patients were 16-20 year-olds seeking treatment for addiction - a "dramatic increase" on the number over the last ten years - sadly, several of her patients were even younger.

In a recent survey of more than 1,500 teachers, around 70 percent said they were conscious of students sharing sexual content, with as many as one in six of those involved in primary school age. More than 2,000 children have been reported to police for crimes linked to offensive images over the past three years.

"So many of my clients are 13 and 14-year-old girls who are involved in sexting, and describe sexting as 'completely normal'," said Ms. Saligari.

Many young female students particularly believe that sending an image of themselves naked to somebody on their phone is "normal" and that it only becomes "wrong" when a parent or adult finds out, she added.

"If children are taught self-respect they are less likely to exploit themselves in that way," said Ms. Saligari. "It's an issue of self-respect and it's an issue of identity."

Speaking alongside Ms. Saligari at the Highgate Junior School conference on teen development, Dr.Richard Graham, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital Technology Addiction Lead, explained that the issue was a growing area of interest for researchers, as parents have reported struggling to find the correct balance for their children.

Ofcom figures suggest more than 40 percent of parents of 12-15 year-olds find it hard to control their children's screen time.

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